Christmas in Norway
“On the seven seas and in harbours throughout the world Christmas trees are set up
on the mastheads of Norwegian ships when Christmas approaches. And on board
ship, as in Norwegian homes all over the world, Christmas is celebrated Norwegian
style — which means that it is celebrated a little differently from the way other people
do it. ”
By Vera Henriksen
The differences are less now than just a few years ago. Improved communications
and increased intercourse between countries have led to an intermingling of
traditions. And to a foreign guest the similarities between Christmas in Oslo and in
London or New York may appear more conspicuous than the differences.
There is the same hectic Christmas shopping spree, the big, lighted Christmas trees
in the squares, streets decorated with garlands and lights, fanciful window displays
with starry-eyed youngsters craning their necks to get a better view.
And, as in any city, the adults dream about the good, old-fashioned Christmas the
way grandmother used to celebrate it.
But in Norway this is a dream that may come true — for those who are lucky enough
to be invited to a real country Christmas.
Christmas in the country
In big country kitchens in farms and villages off the beaten track the hectic
preparations still begin weeks before the festival season. The special Christmas beer,
“Juleøl”, is brewed; the many traditional pork dishes are prepared; numerous kinds
of small cakes (biscuits, cookies), the minimum being seven different kinds, are
baked together with the “julekake”, the sweet Christmas bread filled with raisins,
candied peel and cardamom. The smell of Christmas fills the house, bringing the
children’s expectations up to fever pitch.
And then there is the traditional thorough housecleaning as the Holiday
approaches, and the chopping of enough wood to keep the fires burning for at least
the first three days of Christmas.
Nowadays there is, in addition, a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip
that grandfather probably did not make. For the Christmas tree was not introduced
into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the nineteenth century; to the
country districts it came even later.
Then, finally, when Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually
done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children
are ready to burst with excitement outside.
It is also usual on Christmas Eve to make a trip to the barn with a bowl of porridge
for the “nisse”, the gnome who — according to superstition — is the protector of the
farm. Nowadays this ceremony is performed for the benefit of the children, but
grandmother may possibly have had an uneasy feeling that the little fellow might
actually exist. But he is not the only one to be given a treat; the “julenek”, a sheaf of
oats for the birds, is mounted on a pole, and the farm animals get a special
And then, on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, the church bells start chiming to ring
in the Holiday. For this occasion, as for other great feasts, they are not rung in the
ordinary way: there is no lazy ding-dong, instead there is an intense and protracted
ding-ding-ding for several minutes, as the bell is struck by a rapid succession of
As the sound of the bells dies away, Christmas peace settles over the farms and the
villages. Stragglers who have not yet reached their destinations hurry to join
relatives and friends, while in the farm yard the snow creaks underfoot, and light
from the windows glows invitingly into the dark winter afternoon. The Christmas
celebration itself begins with the solemn reading of the gospelfor Christmas Day;
perhaps from a family Bible that is several hundred years old, with generations of
births and baptisms, confirmations and marriages and deaths recorded on its
After this, the family sits down for the traditional meal, which to a foreigner may
seem to contrast strangely with the festive occasion. Usually the main dish is
porridge, or — where available — fresh cod, or possibly “lutefisk”, cod treated in a lye
solution and served boiled. This traditional fare is probably a survival from
pre-Reformation times, when Christmas Eve was a day of fast and abstinence. Today
however, the meal is rounded off with a variety of dishes that have no connection
whatever with abstinence.
But the children do not usually enjoy the meal very much. Their eyes keep turning to
the closed living room door, and they grow more and more impatient with the
unbearably slow pace with which their elders finish the meal. It seems to them as if
an eternity has passed when the big moment arrives and the door to the living room
is thrown open.
The children tumble in, only to stop short, awestruck by the sight of the tree, aglow
with the light from real candles, and with the neatly wrapped gifts heaped
Then follows a Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree”. Everybody
joins hands to form a ring around the tree, and the company then walk around it
Finally, the gifts are distributed, and the children can relax. The rest of the evening is
spent on fun and games and there are cakes and other good things to be eaten.
On the morning of Christmas Day itself the family goes to church, In previous times
there was an early morning service, followed by a big breakfast at home. Nowadays
the service is later and the traditional meal is a family dinner, usually with pork as
the main dish.
But in some communities the church itself will be the same as in ages past, perhaps a
small wooden church that has served the parish since the Middle Ages. There may
be runic inscriptions on the time-darkened walls, paintings and carvings done
during the centuries since those remote times, and — perhaps too — for those who
have ears to hear it — the faint echo of the hundreds of earlier Christmas services.
But Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are only the beginning of a season of
celebration lasting at least to Epiphany, and even in some places until the thirteenth
of January — the twentieth day of Christmas, and the feast day of St. Canute. Then,
according to a saying, “twentieth-day Canute drives away Christmas”.
It is a season for socializing. In some places, though only for nostalgic reasons,
people still use horse and sleigh, and the tinkle of sleigh-bells may be heard among
the snow-clad trees. It is a season of welcoming, of warm light streaming out of open
doors as guests are received, a season of games and merriment, when nobody
mentions children’s bedtimes. It is also a time when children are allowed to dress up
in fancy-dress and to go around from one farm to another, to be treated to cakes and
other delicacies wherever they come. This custom is called “to go julebukk”
(“Christmas goat”), and the origin of it is obscure; there is, however, agreement
among historians that it dates back to the Middle Ages.
This is the kind of Christmas that can still be experienced in country districts, a kind
of Christmas very much like that which grandmother knew. It is, however, possible
that grandmother felt like going into hibernation for a week after St. Canute had
finally put an end to the festivities; they must have involved her in a quite staggering
amount of work.
The oldest traditions
Generally people accept their Christmas tradition without question. They do not
stop to consider that these customs are a kind of museum, showing glimps es of their
forefathers’ way of life and beliefs, of pagan cults as well as of ancient Christian
But Christmas, the great Christian festival, has assimilated customs from many
religions. And each country has woven its own special Christmas traditions from a
tangle of various threads, all leading back through the centuries.
The evergreen Christmas tree conveys the idea of vitality and growth, in spite of
winter and the dark period, and incorporates pagan as well as Christian symbols.
The misteltoe we acquired from the Celts, the holly from the Saxons, and the custom
of giving gifts was taken from a Roman New Year festival. The people of Norway
have among their own Christmas customs some that can be traced back to the pagan
sacrificial offerings of their viking forebears.
Even Yule, or in Norwegian “Jul”, which is the name for the Holiday, dates back to
pre-Christian times. Joulu or Lol was a pagan feast celebrated all over Northern
Historians differ as to what kind of feast this “joulu” was, also as to the exact time of
the year when it was celebrated, although there is general agreement that it must
have fallen on some date during late autumn or early winter. Most of them agree that
it was not only a fertility feast, but that it was also, or somehow came to be
associated with, a sacrificial feast for the dead.
This combination may sound strange to modern ears. But in an agricultural society,
tied to the yearly cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and of birth,
reproduction and death, it might have seemed natural to link together fertility and
death — life’s emergence from and return to the unknown.
The oldest of our customs seem to be remnants of this feast. They have to do with
sacrifices to the gods and to the dead, and they generally concern food and drink.
A Norse skald who lived about the year A.D. 900, a hundred years or so before
Norway became a Christian country, said in a lay about his king:
He drinks Yule at sea,
if he has his way,
the far-sighted chieftain.
In the same connection the skald mentions Frøy, the god of fertility, and the lay thus
indicates the ancient origin of one or two of the traditions mentioned above.
One is the special “juleøl”, the Yuletime beer that is brewed on the farms, and in
modern times also by the breweries. The custom of brewing this special beer can be
traced back through the centuries to the time when horns filled with beer during the
Joulu festivities were dedicated to the Norse gods Odin, Frøy and Njord. But when
modern-day Norwegians at Christmas time lift their glasses in the traditional
Scandinavian “skål” (Pronounced scawl), they give little or no thought to their viking
forefathers who lifted the horns of sacrificial beer to drink for peace and a good year
The juleøl tradition survived the country’s conversion to Christianity simply because
people refused to give it up. And the rulers wisely chose to give the old tradition new
symbolic meaning, rather than abolish it. The beer was no longer to be considered as
a sacrificial drink: it was just to be called Holiday beer. And, according to one of the
old laws of the land, it should be “blessed on Christmas night, to Christ and the
The old lay’s mention of the god Frøy points to the origin of another tradition: it is
believed that a pig was sacrificed to Frøy at some point during the Joulu celebration,
and that it provided the main dish of the subsequent feast.
This may be the reason why, even today, pork is served in most Norwegian homes at
Christmas. But the Christmas pork is prepared in many different ways. It may be a
whole roast piglet, or it may be served as pressed pork, roast pork with sour cabbage,
smoked ham or pickled trotters.
The belief in the “nisse” also goes back to pagan times. His ancestry as protector of
the farm can be traced back to the man who, some time during the distant past, had
first cleared the land. Often this man was believed to be buried in one of the burial
mounds near the houses. At Yuletide, the feast for the dead, food and drink was
brought out to the mound for him, and he was believed to come out to eat and drink.
During the centuries the popular image of this much respected and feared ghost
changed into the less dangerous, but still at times destructive and leprechaun-like
“nisse” of Norwegian fairy tales.
But the “nisse” does not survive today only in Norwegian tradition. A strange
intermingling has taken place between the Nordic “nisse” and the St. Nicolas of
central Europe. The result is the queer mixture of gnome and bishop that American
children get to know through the poem “The night before Christmas”; the jolly little
Santa Claus with the red suit, the potbelly and the merry eyes. In Norway too the
native «nisse» contains strong elements of the imported Santa Claus.
However the ancestor of the “nisse” is not the only ghost supposed to be around at
Yuletide; the dead were believed to travel about in great numbers during this season.
Food was therefore left on the tables for them on Christmas night, or even in some
places, for the entire Holiday period. It is an eerie thought, as one helps oneself to the
abundance of food on the Christmas buffets of Norwegian restaurants, that the
tradition of these meals probably goes back to the ghostly banquets of superstition.
However, the abundance and variety of dishes may probably be traced to another
tradition. People believed that the quantity of the food served at Christmas augured
poverty or plenty in the year to come. Naturally, therefore, they outdid themselves to
ensure a year of abundance.
There are other Christmas traditions, too, that can be traced back to the early Middle
Ages: the use of straw decorations and the sheaf of oats set out for the birds, for
instance, and also the Christmas baking. But the origin of these customs is more
uncertain. Some historians maintain that they have some connection with the old
fertility feast, others insist that they do not.
Christmas in the towns
In the cities and towns of today people tend to simplify the traditional celebrations.
Even so, many of the time-honoured traditions are still upheld.
The gifts are still opened on Christmas Eve and carols are still sung around the tree.
The traditional foods, the porridge, the “lutefisk” or ordinary codfish, the various
pork dishes and the “julekake”, are still served; but the most complicated pork dishes
have most probably been bought readymade, and there is a fair chance that the cakes
will have come from a bakery.
However, the custom of paying visits to friends and relatives during the Holiday
week is still kept up; and there is also a tradition of Christmas hospitality even to
strangers, in keeping with the feeling that nobody ought to be alone and unhappy on
Moreover, the foreign visitor who knows what to look for will soon discover that
there is still a distinct Norwegian flavour even in those busy preparations for the
Holiday in the city streets.
There are the traditional Christmas dishes and small cakes, the straw decorations
and the “nisse” dolls, all prominently displayed in the stores. He or she will also find
that some of the shop window displays have typically Norwegian themes: the
“nisse” sitting in the barn with his bowl of porridge, for instance, or the sheaf of oats
full of gaily-coloured birds.
In addition there are, of course, many things that may be seen in other places: the
Santa Clauses in the large department stores with their beards and red costumes, the
Christmas trees and decorations, the happy and expectant people.
Moreover, if the opportunity presents itself, a visitor to a Norwegian town at
Christmas should give him or herself the treat of sampling the Christmas buffet of
one of the well-known restaurants. And, if something is to his or her liking, it might
be appropriate to send a grateful thought to those mediaeval ghosts who may well
have been responsible for the first Christmas feast.